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Fighting pests with the internet of things

I read an article on the rat problem recently. It detailed an innovative solution to fighting rats that spread disease and devastate our crops. Until now, the primary solution has been to use poison and traps, but clearly that hasn’t worked. Looking deeper, the root issue is that a pair of rats can produce 15,000 offspring in a single year, so even if we drastically reduce the population, it’ll always grow right back. This article gave us a solution that thinks differently. The elegant solution was a contraceptive that stops rats from breeding and thus has a long-lasting impact on their population. Let’s apply this thinking more broadly to managing all pests on a farm.

Traditional pest control methods

  • Chemicals are a big part of most farms. Pesticides do reduce losses from mice, insects and other pests, but using chemicals doesn’t come without costs. Consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of these chemicals on their own health. Additionally, pests develop resistances over time, requiring heavier use or new, more costly pesticides. IoT, pests, pest management
  • Seed science can modify plants to become more resistant or less appealing to some pests as well. This can often force farmers to contract with a seed company year after year and can be costly.
  • Infrastructure, such as greenhouses, fences and other structures, helps keep out or deter some pests. While this works well for certain situations, like keeping deer and other large animals out, it can be either too costly or just plain ineffective when trying to combat insects and smaller animals.
  • Design of certain elements of a farm can also deter pests. An interesting example is farmers in Africa who planted chilies around the outside of their fields to make them less appealing to elephants. While this is a very smart solution for certain situations, it won’t work for many others.

A new method: Internet of things

Despite our best efforts to deter pests, they remain an issue that continually challenges farmers. One answer can be to look beyond common farming practices to technology, specifically the internet of things. IoT can be used to connect sensors and devices in the field that analyze, visualize and automate data to inform quick action.

While the idea of implementing IoT into farming sounds great, it’s been more aspirational until now. Several trends, however, are making IoT solutions for farming more and more realistic:

  • Hardware: Low-power, high-performance sensors and other hardware are becoming less expensive
  • Networks: Specialized networking protocols like LPWAN have emerged for low-coverage areas like farms
  • Cloud: The power of cloud computing has enabled people to take big data and transform it into meaningful insights that help users make educated decisions to improve operational efficiencies
  • Platform: Powerful software platforms have come onto the market as the foundation for full connected solutions from devices to analytics to applications

These enabling trends make full, industry-specific IoT solutions more realistic than ever. A Machina Research report estimated that the number of connected agricultural devices is expected to grow from 13 million at the end of 2014 to 225 million by 2024. Clearly, connected technologies are picking up steam and will impact how farms operate now and in the future.

IoT for pest control

Pest control is an area where IoT isn’t often considered, but should be. Here are a few examples of where it can be implemented:

  • Pest monitoring: Remotely monitor for specific pests to understand their activity, location and patterns. This can be done using by connecting traps to report specific pest levels, thus automating monitoring and data collection to take more accurate and quicker countermeasures. One example would be an apple orchard that may want to measure codling moth levels in different areas of the farm so it can be ready to take action when necessary.
  • Weather monitoring: Tracking hyper-local weather conditions can also add context to help predict the size and threat level of pest populations. One example is olive plantations looking to combat fruit flies and their larvae, which cause premature falling of the fruit. Temperature and rainfall are key indicators that help predict fruit fly activity, and if tracked in real-time, this information can inform what actions should be taken.
  • Chemical automation: Monitoring pesticide levels on plants over time can help farmers minimize use and maximize results. If it rains, a farmer may need to apply pesticides more often, but the impact that a storm has on different areas of a field can lead to over- and under-application of pesticides in different locations. Generally chemical levels can be monitored using sensors in the soil or above ground near plants.
  • Crop health monitoring: Compare actual crop growth to projections, taking into consideration weather and other factors to help identify when you may have pests and catch them early.
  • IPM automation: Integrated pest management is a process encouraged by the U.S. government to select pest control actions that will ensure favorable economic, ecological and social consequences. Automating time-consuming aspects of IPM such as measuring various data points on a farm (monitoring) and taking action based on that data (response) makes the process more accurate, more timely and less of a burden for the farmer.
  • Full solution: By combining the above IoT capabilities into a full solution, a more accurate understanding and response is possible. The complete record of the pest’s attack on the crop, the amount of pesticide used and how much crop production is affected can be tracked to help inform response this crop cycle and in the future.

Just like rat contraceptives to control populations in cities, broader pest control on farms needs new solutions. Using IoT to make traditional pest control methods more effective can give farms a leg up on competition. IoT can be more cost-effectively deployed now than ever before, and many farms and vendors have already started implementing such solutions. While pest control is one use case for these connected solutions, the real value in agriculture will come when data from different areas (pest management, fertilizer application, irrigation, supply chain, pricing, weather and so forth) all come together to inform full farm operations.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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